Letters to a Young Poet


This is a collection of letters from Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old officer cadet at military academy. The letters were sent between 1903 and 1908.

Kappus was an aspiring poet and reached out to Rilke as he was a former cadet at the same academy. He was originally looking for feedback on his work, but the letters go on to cover more general topics such as love, sex and loss.

This is considered a classic and is included in the Penguin Classics range.

It was given to me as it “contained advice for writers” — which I try and do when I stop getting distracted.

Honestly, I struggled to get through even the paltry 52 pages, and was glad it wasn’t any longer.

The letters are written in the overly florid style of the period, enhanced by a writer who makes everything even more long-winded and obtuse. There’s no straight-forward advice. It’s like mining for gems — you have to dig through the spoil to get anything at all.

Even then, it didn’t strike any chords with me. Perhaps I lack the insight or intelligence to discern the meaning from the babble but I was left confused rather than inspired. The fact that you only get one side (Rilke’s replies, not Kappus’ letters) doesn’t help you understand what question he’s replying to.

What I could discern, or have picked up from other people’s summaries, could have been distilled to a single page.

Unless you’re a poet from the early 20th Century, I wouldn’t bother.

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Reviewed: 15th January 2019